SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — Some five weeks from now, after the World Cup trophy has been raised at Rio’s fabled Maracana Stadium, organizers will name the tournament’s all-star team, a list that may very well feature Brazil’s Neymar, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Spain’s Andres Iniesta.
In soccer parlance, it’s known as the Best XI.
Consider it the Broken XI.
Mexico’s Luis Montes and Italy’s Riccardo Montolivo were late scratches because of leg fractures. Belgium’s Christian Benteke, England’s Theo Walcott and Russian captain Roman Shirikov are out. Costa Rica’s Alvaro Saborio and the Netherlands’ Rafael van der Vaart canceled their travel plans.
Several ailing stars, most notably Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, have arrived in Brazil but are not in prime condition. Neymar, who carries Brazil’s hopes and dreams of a sixth world championship, set off (false) alarms this week when he rolled his right ankle.
It’s not unusual for injuries to strike before the World Cup, and in the modern media era, the slightest setback is amplified and overanalyzed. This year, though, the bug appears more severe — the result, some believe, of increasing demand on players during the club season and the brief turnaround before reporting to national team duty ahead of the sport’s premier competition.
Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, which puts on the World Cup, blamed “too long a [club] season and always the same players [from the elite clubs] are always in the same competitions. Now they are tired.”
Real Madrid, which supplied 12 players to World Cup squads, has played more than 60 matches of varying importance since August, a considerable uptick in the past decade. Just 38 of those games were in league play, the rest in cup and international events.
“All of the players competing in the World Cup have had a pretty heavy calendar of soccer,” said forward David Villa, Spain’s career scoring king, who played for Atletico Madrid in 2013-14 and will move to MLS expansion club New York City FC next year. “They are prepared, but there is always a possibility of an injury.”
Fatigue is not responsible for all injuries. Muscular ailments occur at all stages of the season, while missteps and reckless tackles are also to blame. Falcao suffered a knee injury in January.
“There [are] certain things as players you do to try to prevent injuries, to try to stay fit, but at the end of the day, you step on the field, you play, you leave everything out on the field and unfortunately things happen at times,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “No player ever wants to see anybody else get hurt and have to miss a big game, a big tournament.”
Bradley is injury-free entering his second World Cup, but two former club teammates, whom he still regards as friends, were scratched: Strootman, slated to start for the Dutch, tore a knee ligament in March, and Reus, one of Germany’s best players, tore ankle ligaments in a friendly last weekend.
One of the teams unaffected by significant injury? The United States.
None of the serious candidates for Juergen Klinsmann’s training camp roster were ruled out.
No notable issues arose during two weeks of workouts at Stanford University or the three home friendlies between May 27 and June 7. The only ailment that caused a stir was captain Clint Dempsey’s sore groin, which forced him out of the lineup before the Azerbaijan friendly in San Francisco two weeks ago; he scored against Turkey five days later.
In 2010, Coach Bob Bradley had to contend with players returning from long-term setbacks, most notably midfielder Stuart Holden, but did not face a late crisis.
The Americans have not always been so fortunate: In 2002, Chris Armas, a midfielder vying for regular playing time in South Korea, tore a knee ligament in the first tuneup. His replacement, Greg Vanney, injured his knee in the next match. And Vanney’s replacement, Steve Cherundolo, got hurt in training and did not play in the World Cup.
Four years later, defenders Frankie Hejduk and Cory Gibbs were scratched and captain Claudio Reyna suffered a hamstring injury that impacted his performance in Germany.
Teams finalized their 23-man squads June 2, and in case of serious injury, are permitted to make a change up to 24 hours before their first match. After that, rosters are frozen.
Not all injuries, apparently, are rooted in physical problems. A witch doctor in Ghana claims to have caused Ronaldo’s knee and thigh condition.
“I know what Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury is about,” Nana Kwaku Bonsam told Angel FM radio station. “I’m working on him.”